Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Separation is Merely an Illusion

Amy Walter's column "It's Still 1960 in Washington" rings true in many ways. Designed to point out the stain of sexism and condescending attitudes Washington still holds within its its corridors of power, the piece also speaks to that which we have gained and have yet to gain regarding equality between the sexes. Certain assumptions have proved difficult to completely eradicate from our system and while the boldest and most visible offenders may have been banished from public sight into private secret, subtle suggestion and dog whistle have sprung up to replace them. To be sure, we do not live in a post-sexist society (yet), though if one only considered the victories won and not the upcoming contests, it might be easy to be lulled to complacency. At times we resemble the boxer, who having won a few key contests, rests back on his haunches, fails to stay in shape for his next match, and ends up losing it based on poor conditioning.

Gloria Steniem wrote,

"Those of us who were taught the cheerful American notion that progress is linear and hierarchical may have had to learn with pain...that no worthwhile battle can be fought and won only once....the issues still repeat themselves in different ways and in constantly shifting arenas."

This is, at its core, the fly in the ointment of many a Progressive and many an activist. No single election, no single candidate, no single protest, no single idea, no single victory of any size is enough. Whether you agree or disagree with the mission, The Crusades, after all, progressed easily enough at the beginning. Spurred to action by the passionate appeals of a zealous Pope, highly trained and heavily skilled armies easily defeated Muslim forces. After having secured the Holy Land and established outposts, Christian crusaders began to slowly but steadily trickle back home with time. This left the soldiers who did remain in the coveted territories and manning the castle outposts vulnerable to Muslim attack. In time, the crusader states won went back into the hands of the "infidels" and the process had no choice but to start all over again. End of Crusade One. Next, Crusade Two.

Rust is the enemy of reform and as much as it would be tempting to swap war stories, no worthwhile conflict leaves any room for nostalgia. The problem facing Feminism right now (or for that matter, any reform movement) is that many of the major forces at play haven't recognized the generational shift and new challenges that are merely part of the progression of time. Instead, they want to fight the newest enemy with obsolete strategies and obsolete weaponry. Those who do recognize the problem, frequently young Feminists and young activists, end up being tokenized, patronized, or discounted. These offenses have led to third-wavers forming their own organizations and groups, though in truth it would be far better if everyone was on the same page and not working at cross-purposes with each other. In order to make change, one must be willing to make change within oneself, and those who encourage self-reflection, sad to say, often run the risk of taking a long walk off of a short plank.

For years, the goal of feminism was to get reproductive rights out of the realm of "women's issues" and into the category of "family issues." And many have wondered if EMILY's List, an organization dedicated solely to electing pro-choice Democratic women, has outlived its usefulness. After all, in an era that saw a woman come so close to being elected president, a women's-only group can sound as outdated as the three-martini lunch. Yet it was striking that on an issue as central to the Democratic party ideology as this one, it was up to women to define and defend it.

Upon first reading this passage, I was afraid Walter was going to resort to the same argument which states that feminism and women's-only groups are superfluous and outdated. The need for them does persist, but aforementioned outdated thinking and antiquated strategy comprises the mission statements of far too many of them. That which begins with good intentions drifts dangerous towards self-parody if group introspection is not prized and actively incorporated. Many women's rights groups could and probably have been fodder for The Onion and for good reason. The second-wave feminism of the sixties and seventies advances the concerns of a relatively privileged group of now aging white middle class women and frequently doesn't take into account currents trends and cultural evolution. Furthermore, getting more than just reproductive rights transformed into the realm of family issues is what Feminism has attempted and frequently failed to do. Even invoking the phrase "family issues" instantly conjures up maternal images of rocking babies to sleep and feeding small children.

What needs to happen, unless it is forever perceived in the cultural imagination as a niche group with a relatively limited scope, is for Feminism's goals to advance human rights. To be sure, there are many activists, myself being only one, who are attempting to bring this to pass. What we continue to struggle with, however, are cultural attitudes that lock men out of the process altogether by assuming that they will be meant to feel unwelcome in feminist circles or that taking an interest in the concerns of women is masculine and thus effeminate. Along with this is a gross stereotype that portrays Feminism as shrill, exclusive, lacking an understanding of irony, and having no grasp of nuance or subtlety. Though most Feminist thought does have a woman-centered emphasis for good reason, I as a man have been amazed at how much of conventional masculine gender roles and concerns I can observe even in the most strictly female construct. It is that point in particular that makes me realize that our supposed separation from each other is a skillfully crafted illusion. We must not be careful to not break the bonds of fidelity and common purpose that link us together, provided we are willing to constantly seek them and repair them. Wear and tear is simply part of the game.

1 comment:

PENolan said...

Well said, CK.
I've been making the Humanist argument since 1976, and I still think part of the reason Sarah Palin got where she is today is because so many women will not identify as Feminists as a result of the Shrill factor. It's a shame because many GLBT issues overlap with feminist ones. Poverty, too.